Franz Liszt is credited with inventing the idea of the master class. A celebrated 19th century pianist who drew flocks of people to his concerts, Liszt wished to impart to others some of the specific knowledge he had of music, piano artistry, composition, and performance. It didn’t take long for the concept to catch on, and soon there was a demand for other famous performers to follow suit.
The valuable insights offered in a master class can be both interesting to the lay observer and life-changing for students of the art. The model is for an experienced expert in a field, often music performance (acting and cooking also come to mind), to publicly share his or her knowledge and experience with individual students, one at a time, in a practical, focused way. For the student it is like having a brief private lesson with a successful practitioner of the art, with the additional adrenalin edge created by the presence of an audience. The audience learns along with the student by eavesdropping on what would customarily be a private exchange.
The element of master classes that can sometimes be overlooked is that it is not just the teacher who is a master. Aspiring artists attain mastery over time, and the students chosen to perform in a master class are generally already at an advanced level, with many years of study under their belt. Thus, the points discussed may be fine details of tone, technique, and phrasing, a deeper understanding of the composer’s intent, and high-level overall shaping of the music. It is not only entertaining but inspiring to see a talented student digest the master teacher’s comments quickly and achieve a noticeable, even phenomenal change in their performance in a few short minutes.
Usually a master class lasts an hour or so, and three or four students are each offered the benefit of being publicly coached for 15 to 20 minutes, with the expectation of something awesome being achieved right there and then. For the audience it is exciting to see a talented singer in the “hot seat” make a leap forward right before their eyes.